Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Executing Women in Ohio

THE FAIRER DEATH: EXECUTING WOMEN IN OHIO BY VICTOR STREIB. OHIO UNIVERSITY PRESS (ATHENS OHIO), 2006. 197 PP PB

THE GOOD-BYE DOOR: THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY OF AMERICA’S FIRST FEMALE SERIAL KILLER TO DIE IN THE CHAIR BY DIANA BRITT FRANKLIN. KENT STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS (KENT, OHIO), 2006. 244 PP PB

by Kate Brown

Up until now an empty niche existed in the realm of Ohio history—women on death row. In his book, The Fairer Death: Executing Women in Ohio, Streib establishes that the death penalty for women in Ohio and in general is a rare phenomenon. Further, Streib calls the women “the forgotten population” and poses many questions such as who they were and why they were singled out for the death penalty while other women convicted of murder were not.

Coincidentally, in the same year, Kent State published a book that complements Streib’s text in its True Crime Series; The Good-Bye Door: The Incredible True Story of America’s First Female Serial Killer to Die in the Chair by Diana Britt Franklin. The major difference between the two books is that Streib profiles fifteen cases while Franklin focuses on just one. In her book, a finalist for an Ohioana Book Award in nonfiction, Franklin tells the story of Anna Marie Hahn, Ohio’s only known female serial killer and the first female to die in “Old Sparky” (a nickname for the infamous electric chair in Ohio).

Hahn’s is the most interesting case of the fifteen profiled by Streib. Perhaps it is because Anna Marie Hahn is the lone serial killer of the group. The blonde, blue-eyed Hahn killed (or was suspected of killing) seven men and one woman and was suspected of poisoning five others including her husband and mother-in-law. Most of her victims were elderly and all were poisoned. Franklin does her best to reveal Hahn as a character while Streib provides basic facts about his fifteen cases. Franklin’s book is more literary in nature (reading like a good fiction novel) while Streib’s book reads more like a sociological text.

Streib’s main subject seems to be the death penalty rather than the women he profiles, while Franklin’s main subject is Hahn. Franklin does focus a great deal on Hahn’s murders, trial, and execution, but she also includes a look into Hahn’s entire life. Franklin profiles Hahn from her early years as a favored child born to a devout Catholic family in Bavaria to her fall from grace as a single mom which led her trip to America where she settled in Ohio and married before descending into life as a serial killer. The author includes an analysis as to what factors led Hahn to murder in her narrative.

In her book, Franklin leaves little doubt that Hahn (executed at age 32) was guilty while Streib poses the possibility that Hahn’s ten or eleven year old son may have poisoned the men and that Hahn confessed to at least one of the murders in order to protect her son, Oscar. However, Franklin establishes how Hahn alone acted to benefit financially from the deaths. Franklin does not ignore Oscar, but it is obvious she never suspected him of murdering anyone. In her twenty-three page confession, published in part in Franklin’s book, Hahn writes that she hopes that people will not judge her son for the crimes she committed.

Franklin researched Hahn’s case for five years. Of the case she writes, “Period newspapers on microfilm made clear this was not a simple Cincinnati murder case. It was big, very big, with widespread national and even international interest.” (ix) Franklin believes the book to be “a historically accurate account of her crimes,” and her work seems credible. An appendix, bibliography and index appear at the end of the book.

Streib’s book is shorter, but more concise. He is an attorney who has represented female offenders on death row. His project was planned as a law review article but grew into a book. His work (part of the Ohio University Press Series on Law, Society, and Politics in the Midwest) does reflect that Streib has a good grasp on the appropriate laws and the judicial system in general. He has been researching the death penalty for approximately 20 years and his in-depth knowledge is demonstrated throughout the book.

Despite being a credible author with extensive knowledge on his subject, Streib did let his bias be known. His reference to his subjects as “the forgotten population,” as noted previously, is bothersome. He seems almost too sympathetic towards his subjects even though all have been convicted of murder. Streib put all the focus on the women on death row and hardly any on their victims. One can’t help but wonder if the victims of these women deserve a book because they too may be considered forgotten. In contrast, Franklin makes sure that her readers know all of Hahn’s victims—who they were, how old they were, and what they did for a living.

However, Streib’s analysis is excellent and the extent of his research evident. In a well-organized endeavor, his book is divided into five sections: A Context of Sex Bias; The Evolution of Ohio’s Death Penalty; Women Executed in Ohio, 1803-2005; Women Sentenced to Death in Ohio, 1973-2005; and Comparing and Contrasting Cases. Black and white photos of most of the women, an appendix, note section, and index are included.

In conclusion, by addressing the topic of women on death row, the books by Streib and Franklin ably fill a previously empty niche of Ohio history. Streib’s book provides a well-researched overview of the death penalty and includes a brief discussion of each of the female Ohioans who have or who are facing the penalty. Franklin’s book fleshes out the case of Anna Marie Hahn—probably the most notorious and interesting of the fifteen. While each book stands on its own, they also complement each other well in order to give a comprehensive view of the death penalty for female Ohioans.

(This review originally appeared in Ohioana Quarterly.)

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